(Kenneth Yong & Daniel J. Ellis with the first prototype of the vertical farm. They are prototyping a better version at the Community Lab.)
His grandfather had a farm. His parents planted fruit trees in their own backyard. So when Mr Daniel J. Ellis began planning for his new HDB apartment in Punggol last year, he was determined to relive his fond memories of growing food in South Africa too.
“When I came here, one of my biggest frustrations was I couldn’t really do extensive gardening,” says Daniel who migrated to Singapore in 2012. More than just tending to ornamental plants, the stocky man missed having a ready supply of fresh fruits and vegetables at home. “Where I grew up, you just harvested from your own garden what you need,” recalls the now-Singaporean. “If you want a peach or an apricot, you just pick one from your tree!”
After months of research online and speaking to experts, Daniel’s quest to farm in his high-rise apartment led him to hydroponics technology, which does not require soil like conventional farming. Unable to find a hydroponics system that was affordable and small enough to fit his home, the trained accountant built one for himself. He retrofitted an unwanted bookshelf from moving house with pipes, pumps and plastic trunking bought from a hardware store—creating a home-made hydroponics system, a vertical farm of his own.
“Just do it, just build it and see how it works,” says Daniel who has been making things—webservers, computers, and a solar heating system in South Africa—all his life. He says only two things are required for anyone to start: a curiosity for how things work and a willingness to get your hands dirty. “You absolutely have to try things out,” he says. “If it breaks, you learn a lesson from it!”
After friends expressed interest to buy his vertical farm, Daniel has been working to turn his home-fix solution into a viable business. With his friend, Kenneth Yong, the two recently left their jobs and are prototyping a better version at the Community Lab at United World College Southeast Asia. The aim: to create a mass-manufactured kit that anyone can buy for under $500.
On a recent visit to shared garage space for makers run by the Sustainable Living Lab, the duo proudly showcased their work-in-progress. A cardboard shelf housing three rows of salad leaves and herbs were held up by a plastic trunking of nutrient solutions as they basked in pinkish LED light to photosynthesize. Powering this setup, which had been humming along for a week, are two electrical timer switches that controls when the vegetables are supplied fresh water and light.
“You can buy all these parts off the shelf,” says Kenneth who is no engineer, but a business graduate from the Singapore Management University. He got hooked on experimenting with technology and making after working at a 3D printing firm where he met enthusiasts like Daniel. As their apartments are too small, they have housed themselves in the Community Lab where they get access to power tools and space in exchange for volunteering for the organisation’s workshops and projects.
“When you try it out for yourself, you realise it’s not that hard to make something that works. The information is online and the tools are fairly common,” says the bespectacled Singaporean. “There may not be much finesse when you just start out, but you get better!”
Tech-ing Care of his Plants
Most Singaporeans would have conveniently bought a readymade solution. But when Brian Ong failed to find an automated watering system in the market for his indoor garden, he invented one himself.
Putting together pumps from e-commerce portal Alibaba with an Arduino electronics micro-controller kit to automate the flow of water, the recent architecture graduate successfully designed and built his very own high-tech home-made fix. Not bad for his maiden experience in coding and electronics.
“When you do projects, you need something, you just learn it,” he explains. The need to automate a water pump led Brian to spend weeks reading online tutorials and watching how-to videos so as to figure out how to program his very first Arduino.
While the Internet supplied Brian the know-how, it was his personal experience in making that gave him the confidence to endure what became a year-long project on top of internship and studying at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. Over the years, he has repaired his cello, laser-cut a 35mm film holder and even constructed his room’s plywood bookshelves. The interest in making was sparked when the then secondary school student hacked his study table. By laying a discarded bookshelf on top of plastic cups he drilled onto the table, he created a second level extension to hold his books and stuff.
“You discover you can build stuff and you just continue from there. Whenever you see a problem, if you think you have a solution, you just do it,” he says.
His automated watering system became more than a personal invention when Brian launched it last year on crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. Calling it the Hydra, a plant care companion, he received just over $29,000 in pledges, slightly over half his target. Even though Brian didn’t manage to hit his target, the boyish-looking entrepreneur says it was a worthwhile endeavour.
(Hydra – a plant care companion)
“In the end, it’s for the experience,” he says. “I’ve learnt electronics. I’ve done a Kickstarter [campaign], and I know better how to do it next time.”
The excitement of inventing a new idea is what keeps him going.
“At the end of the day, I can say I made this. Nobody has a bookshelf or Hydra I made. It’s one of a kind.”